Seeds have always been at the heart of a healthy food system.
For millennia, generations of family farmers have selected, saved and shared their best seeds, expanding seed diversity over time. They have nurtured thousands of varieties – 20,000 varieties of corn alone – each with their own unique strengths, adapting to changing conditions with each growing season. Some varieties are resistant to diseases or pests. Others are tolerant of weather extremes like drought or floods or early frosts. Some have better yields or better nutrition. We need all these traits – now more than ever.
Farmers have understood that seed diversity means food security: by planting a variety of seeds, at least some will produce food, no matter what.
Access to diverse seed can make or break farmers’ ability to recover after a bad season, especially in this era of climate variability and extremes. Ensuring access to the right seed ensures farmers can produce food and plan for seasons to come.
Our Diminishing Seed Bank
Modern agriculture has delivered high-yield crops to farmers around the world. Research on bread wheat in Canada has won our country worldwide recognition of its outstanding quality. But we have concentrated on too few crops, and only a few varieties of each. This narrow focus comes at a cost for our food system and our environment.
Over the last 100 years, global seed diversity has declined by 75 per cent. In North America alone, 90 per cent of fruit and vegetable varieties are gone. Canadians rely on just four plant species – wheat, maize, rice and potato – for 60 per cent of the calories in our diet.
Left with fewer and fewer options to deal with very real threats, our food supply becomes vulnerable.
Factors Affecting Global Seed Diversity
- Due to corporate consolidation in the seed industry, three companies now control 53 per cent of the global commercial seed market. The top ten seed companies account for 75 per cent of the world’s seed market.
- Plant breeding can have a major impact on nutrition: in the last 60 years, the average Canadian potato lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A content, 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, and 28 per cent of calcium. Most of the world’s potatoes are bred for French fries.
- The organic sector is the fastest-growing market in agriculture today. Still, 95 per cent of the seeds that grow our major food crops are bred for uniformity, performance under controlled conditions and routine application of synthetic inputs.
Biodiversity hotspots around the planet are also centres of origin for most of the world’s food crops. And here too, seed diversity is diminishing rapidly. Hundreds of potato varieties in the Andes, rice varieties in Asia, ground nuts and cereals in Africa and vegetable varieties everywhere. Small farming communities are losing ground to larger corporate interests who can find more profit in large monocrop plantations destined for export markets like ours. According to a 2014 report by GRAIN, small family farms produce 70 per cent of the world’s food but on just 25 per cent of the available land. But that number is shrinking fast.
The Good News
Good seeds grow more than good food. They grow good communities. Around the world, most family farmers are still saving, using and even expanding the invaluable diversity of local seeds, adapted to all kinds of landscapes, climates and production systems. But they need support.
What Can We Do?
We can become ‘seed savers’ in a many ways.
Being a seed saver means restoring respect for local ecosystems and the environment. It means making better choices of the foods we buy. It means rebuilding closer relationships with our local food producers, no matter where we live in the world. It means supporting farmers who save and use diverse seeds to feed us.
Fundamentally, it means changing the way we grow our food because how we grow our food matters.